Low power artificial synapse chip points way to artificial brain

January 24, 2018 // By Nick Flaherty
Researchers at MIT in the US have designed an artificial synapse in such a way that they can precisely control the strength of an electric current flowing across it, similar to the way ions flow between neurons. The design is a major step toward building portable, low-power neuromorphic chips for use in pattern recognition.

The team has built a small chip with artificial synapses using silicon germanium. In simulations, the researchers found that the chip and its synapses could be used to recognize samples of handwriting, with 95 percent accuracy.

Most neuromorphic chip designs attempt to emulate the synaptic connection between neurons using two conductive layers separated by a switching medium. When a voltage is applied, ions move in the switching medium to create conductive filaments, similarly to how the weight of a synapse changes.

In this architecture is it difficult to control the flow of ions in existing designs as there are many possible paths. “Once you apply some voltage to represent some data with your artificial neuron, you have to erase and be able to write it again in the exact same way,” said Jeehwan Kim, asst professor in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and a principal investigator in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and Microsystems Technology Laboratories. “But in an amorphous solid, when you write again, the ions go in different directions because there are lots of defects,” he said. “This stream is changing, and it’s hard to control. That’s the biggest problem — nonuniformity of the artificial synapse.”

Instead of using amorphous materials as an artificial synapse, Kim and his colleagues used single-crystal silicon and created a precise, one-dimensional line defect, or dislocation, through the silicon, through which ions could predictably flow.

The team then grew a lattice of silicon germanium on top of the silicon wafer. Silicon germanium’s lattice is slightly larger than that of silicon, and Kim found that together, the two perfectly mismatched materials can form a funnel-like dislocation, creating a single path through which ions can flow. 

The neuromorphic chip consists of artificial synapses made from silicon germanium (SiGe), each around 25nm in size. The team applied voltage to each synapse and found that all synapses exhibited more or less the same current, or flow of ions, with about a 4 percent variation between synapses — a much more uniform performance compared with synapses made from amorphous material.

They also tested a single synapse over multiple trials, applying the same voltage over 700 cycles, and found the synapse exhibited the same current, with just 1 percent variation from cycle to cycle. “This is the most uniform device we could achieve, which is the key to demonstrating artificial neural networks,” said Kim.